What Causes Prejudice Essay

In the modern world, there is a direct link between prejudice and discrimination.  Prejudice is defined as the unjustified negative attitudes that some people hold against others of a certain group of people.  Prejudice can include attitudes such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and religious persecution.  Prejudices are pre-formed and have no reasonable basis.  Discrimination includes all of the actions that people take against others they have prejudices toward.  The segregation of blacks and whites during the American Civil Rights Movement is an example of discrimination.  A modern example of discrimination might occur if a male employer were to pay a female employee lower wages due to his own sexism.  However, discrimination can also consist of more subtle, passive-aggressive behavior, such as dirty looks, or refusing to patronize a business because the owners or managers are of a certain race, gender, or religion.

There is a self-fulfilling prophecy involved with prejudice and discrimination as well.  Those who have been discriminated against begin to expect those around them to be prejudiced.  This leads to defensive behavior, further fueling the tension between the in-group and the out-group.  Furthermore, members of the in-group then feel justified in their beliefs, because those in the out-group are acting accordingly with the in-group’s preconceived impressions.

Discrimination and its self-fulfilling prophecy play a major role in the maintenance of prejudice and inequality.  First, it causes society to play the “blame game”.  The victims of discrimination blame those who act in discriminatory ways.  In turn, those with prejudice blame the out-group for putting themselves into their own predicament, and harbor resentment against them for pointing fingers.  Most often, neither group is willing to cooperate or see from the other’s perspective, and the reality of the situation is ignored.  The result of all of this is the perpetuation of stereotypes, which provide a backbone for discriminatory practices.

Take for example the uproar caused by the re-election of President Obama for his second term as President.  After his re-election, some states began threatening to secede from the United States for completely asinine reasons; claiming that a black man could not run a country, or that Obama wasn’t truly a US-born citizen.  These opinions, which have evidence that prove the contrary, are rooted in racism.  In this case, the racism was the prejudice, and the threat to secede was the discrimination.  The self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play in several ways.  Obama supporters might say that the secessionist states are acting in a typical racist way.  Their opposition could respond by saying Obama supporters only support him because of his race.  Both of these stigmas have been reinforced, and the conflict continues on.

Another issue which examines many aspects of inequality is the controversy over affirmative action plans in colleges and workplaces.  Affirmative action committees were formed in order to provide equal opportunities to minorities, so that every school or professional organization would include a certain quota of people from all races and ethnicities.  These programs protect individuals of minority race, religion, gender, and sex.  However, some argue that because these programs are focused on socioeconomic factors instead of on individual merit, they are inherently unfair because they are disadvantageous to the majority population, and it is sometimes referred to as “reverse discrimination”.  Here, the prejudice stems from good intentions for bettering the life of minorities.  The discrimination is the exclusion of the majority population.  The self-fulfilling prophecy might hold that the majority population, by opposing affirmative action, is practicing the very oppression that these programs were originally designed to deter.  Therefore, the need for these programs seems to be reinforced.

Whether intentional or not, prejudice and discrimination ensure the continuance of inequality in the United States.  Even subconsciously, we are furthering inequality through our actions and reactions with others.  Our feelings, or prejudices, influence our actions, or discriminations.  Because these forces are universally present in our daily lives, the way we use them or reject them will determine how they affect us.

By
Máire A. Dugan

January 2004

I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally. -- W.C. Fields

The definition of prejudice provided by Gordon Allport 60 years ago is still used as an authoritative definition of the term prejudice:

aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.

Prejudice is seen as having different sources, chief among them being different forms of fear. Stephan and Stephan's Integrated Threat Theory of Prejudice is inclusive of several different types of threat: the expectation that the other will do one harm; the perception that the different worldview of the other will create challenges to one's own; the presumption that interaction will lead to embarrassment, rejection, or ridicule; and the generation of fear of negative consequences as a result of negative stereotypes. They posit that several factors are likely to influence the degree to which an individual feels these sources of threat:

"Nobody outside of a baby's carriage or a judge's chamber believes in an unprejudiced point of view." -- Lillian Hellman
  • strong identification with one's own group (see the article on identity issues);
  • the degree to which a policy has negative ramifications for that individual;
  • the quantity and, especially, quality of the individual's previous contact with the group;
  • the individual's knowledge of the group;
  • prior intergroup conflict
  • the degree of status differential between the individual's group and the other group.

The higher these factors are, the more likely the individual will feel threatened, and, therefore, the more likely s/he will be prejudiced toward members of that group.

A children's mantra blares out in sing-song fashion, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Words, in fact, can hurt; vicious language is part of the arsenal of the bigot and the bully alike. Attitudes, however, by themselves, are more likely to hurt the holder than the target. If I avoid people who are different than myself, I stunt my own growth, and have little impact on the target of my disaffection. But, each of us is likely to translate attitude into behaviors, whether they be sticks, stones, words, or things more subtle.

Unfortunately, prejudice is not simply an attitude that remains internal to its owner; it impacts behavior. When negative attitudes on the basis of differences translate into behavior, we have as a result, discrimination and the social inequity it produces. Therefore, efforts to reduce prejudice are well advised to take the social context into consideration when focusing on the individuals' attitudes.


S.Y. Bowland describes how the subtlety of racial and gender bias makes it difficult to address.

At least since Allport's generative book on prejudice in 1954, the contact hypothesis has been the backbone of a high percentage of efforts to reduce prejudice. Simply stated the hypothesis is that the increased knowledge resulting from increased contact will reduce prejudice levels. The hypothesis makes sense. Fear is a major cause of prejudice. In the case of the other, we have "a fear of the unknown, a fear of the unfamiliar. If fear is the father of prejudice, ignorance is its grandfather" (Stephan and Stephan, p. 38). This is not only common sense, it is supported by research. In their preliminary meta-analysis of over 200 research studies, Pettigrew and Tropp found that "the initial answer to our query is that intergroup contact generally does relate negatively to prejudice" (2000, p. 98).[1]

If you judge people you have no time to love them. -- Mother Teresa

Of course, there are many caveats in the contact hypothesis, the most broadly discussed being that the contact must be positive. Allport himself suggested four conditions for this: 1) that the groups be relative equals in the contact; 2) that they have common goals; 3) that there be little or no competition between them, and 4) that their meeting be supported by those in authority.

Also, one should consider the target of the prejudice reduction. It makes a difference whether the individual is already motivated to avoid acting in a non-prejudicial fashion or whether s/he feels her/his prejudice is justified. In the former case, the primary prejudice reduction strategy may involve practice. I have learned my prejudicial ways, and they have become habits; I need to develop new habits. In the latter case, it is likely to involve much more. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that attempts to prevent the expression of prejudice by rendering illegal certain types of discriminatory behavior has actually hardened the prejudicial attitudes of many.


Angela Khaminwa, Program Officer for Outreach and Communication at The Coexistence Initiative, describes her current work on coexistence and social inclusion policies.

The underlying theoretical support that suggested that forcing people to change their behaviors would produce long-term attitudinal change derives largely from cognitive dissonance theory, that we cannot think one way and behave in a contrary manner without shaking up our belief structure. The problem is that I can hold in the same moment the idea that I believe X and I am doing not X, but only because you will inflict some penalty on me if I act in accordance to my beliefs. In that case, I may resent you rather than change my beliefs. In order to prevent this possibility, Devine, Plant, and Buswell (2000) suggest two possible strategies.

  • First, more attention might be paid to the exertion of normative, as opposed to legal pressure to change behavior.
  • Additionally, steps can be taken to ensure that the conveyer of moral pressure is someone similar to, and respected by, the target. This combination may reduce the resistance to her/his overture.

Strategies that attempt to change the internal motivation of prejudiced people may also prove effective. Devine et al. suggest two general approaches in this regard: developing empathy for the target group, and prompting people to confront the discrepancies between their general beliefs (e.g., political values such as egalitarianism and religious beliefs such as all people being equal in the eyes of the Creator) and their attitudes toward certain groups of people.

Much of the prejudice reduction work being done focuses on children. Since our prejudices tend to both develop and harden in childhood, the hope is that finding ways to reduce prejudice in childhood will have long-term consequences for society as a whole. David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson posit:

"It is never too late to give up our prejudices." -- Henry David Thoreau

Reducing prejudice and discrimination occurs most successfully when majority and minority individuals interact, have positive experiences, form personal relationships, engage in open and truthful discussions with each other, and develop a personal commitment to reducing prejudice and discrimination. (2000, p. 239)

For this to occur, diverse individuals need to be in contact with each other both extensively and intensively. Schools may be one of very few places in which this is the case, and the Johnsons' work focuses on researching ways in which prejudice is reduced in children and incorporating that learning into prejudice reduction strategies both within and outside of the classroom. They suggest that the optimal program combines three foci:

  • Establishing a cooperative community in which cooperative learning strategies involving diverse participants are utilized both formally and informally;
  • Resolving conflicts constructively. "Constructively managed, conflicts can result in such positive outcomes as increased: (a) energy, curiosity, and motivation, (b) achievement, retention, insight, creativity, problem-solving, and synthesis, (c) healthy cognitive and social development, (d) clarity of own and other's identity, commitments, and values, and (e) positiveness of relationships" (p. 255);
  • Instilling civil values. The values taught by cooperative learning strategies include a recognition that "people who are different from oneself are to be sought out and utilized, because they can make unique contributions to the joint effort" (p. 263).

Some may fear that reducing prejudice toward an outgroup may reduce children's identification with their own group. Wittig and Molina considered this question:

The pattern of results we obtained provides empirical support for attempts to overcome intergroup prejudice through programs that promote participants' retention of their respective ethnic identities, as long as the programs also encourage their greater openness to other ethnic groups. (2000, p. 316)

When I was younger, I was puzzled by the energy with which my father pursued learning so many different languages (Chinese, Russian, French, and Gaelic) and the amount of time he spent on a wide assortment of cultural events, when we were only connected by heritage to some of these things. I don't remember the question I asked him, but his answer stuck with me: "You can't really understand your own culture unless you understand others." Perhaps far from being a detraction to one's identification with, and love for, one's own culture, learning to appreciate those of others could actually be an enhancement.

It appears that much progress has been made in the development of strategies for reducing conflict. Two big problems still loom before us however: the problem of involving sufficient numbers of people in these efforts, and the problem of translating changes in individual attitudes to changes in group ethos.


[1] The essay on Establishing Personal Relationships discusses this idea further.


Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Prejudice." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/prejudice>.


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